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Two Novels by Ann Petry, a Writer Who Believed in Art That Delivers a Message

Category: Art & Culture,Books

Not all who hide wish to be found.

Ann Petry’s first novel, “The Street,” was a literary event in 1946, praised and translated around the world — the first book by a black woman to sell more than a million copies. It’s the story of a catastrophe in agonizingly slow motion. A mother and her young son living in Harlem in the 1940s are ground down by poverty and the bitter racism and constant predation in their neglected neighborhood.

“Streets like the one she lived on were no accident. They were the North’s lynch mobs,” the mother, Lutie, thinks. “The method the big cities used to keep Negroes in their place.” The book was greeted as a female counterpart to Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” a new classic of social realism and one of the early (and only) glimpses into the lives of black working-class women. Its author was feted and photographed and made utterly miserable.

Petry experienced celebrity as a kind of spiritual theft. “My soul was no longer my own,” she recalled to The Times in 1992. “I was a black woman at a point in time when being a writer was not usual, and I was besieged. Everyone wanted a part of me.” She fled Harlem for her hometown in Connecticut, where she lived in seclusion until her death, at 88, in 1997. The threat of exposure still loomed, and she destroyed her letters and other pieces of writing, and remained ambivalent whenever her work was reissued: “I feel as though I were a helpless creature impaled on a dissecting table — for public viewing,” she wrote in her journal.

The Library of America recently published “The Street” in one volume along with Petry’s 1953 masterpiece, “The Narrows,” and a sampling of her critical writing, edited by Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor of English and African American Literature at Columbia University and the author of “Harlem Nocturne,” a group biography of radical women artists in the 1940s, including Petry. Read together, these works by Petry reveal, with fluorescent clarity, the through line between the life and the work — an intimate knowledge, and horror, of surveillance.

“In ‘The Street’ my aim is to show how simply and easily the environment can change the course of a person’s life,” Petry once said. It’s impossible not to connect her own childhood to that privacy she found crucial for self-preservation. Her family was one of four black households in small-town Connecticut and faced routine harassment. She was ordered to leave a public beach as a child, and pelted with stones as she walked to school, where white teachers refused to instruct her. These experiences of feeling scrutinized, even hunted — and her observations of Harlem from her time writing for Adam Clayton Powell’s newspaper The People’s Voice — course through her fiction. The fact of American racism is so large and encompassing it finds personification in her novels as the elements themselves, the winds that assault the characters, the fog that blinds them.

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Ann PetryCreditCarl Van Vechten

“She never felt really human until she reached Harlem,” Petry says of Lutie. Only there, “away from the hostility in the eyes of the white women” and the “openly appraising looks of the white men,” can she feel free — if only for a little while. Mrs. Hedges, who runs a brothel in their apartment building, takes a covetous interest in her. Worse, there is the building’s sinister super; “she could feel his eyes traveling over — estimating her, summing her up, wondering about her.” He wants her terribly, and sneaks into her bedroom when she’s out, to fondle her clothes. When rejected, he coolly decides to “fix her good” — how convenient that she has such a vulnerable young son.

Petry’s characters are watched constantly but cannot themselves see. In the first scene of “The Street,” Lutie struggles to read a “for rent” sign in the middle of a gale; in “The Narrows,” a black man and a white woman meet in the middle of a dense fog, each mistaking the race of the other.

It is just the beginning of their troubles. The novel is often (and naïvely) described as an interracial romance between Camilo, a white heiress, and Link, a black war veteran. A pact of assured mutual destruction is more accurate. They cannot recognize each other’s humanity. To Camilo, Link is inexorably his race; to Link, Camilo is a beautiful machine, “a racehorse or an airplane, all the essential parts in the exact right place.” They have been designed to destroy each other.

Petry wrote unabashed protest art, in the mode of Steinbeck and Stephen Crane. “It seems to me that all truly great art is propaganda, whether it be the Sistine Chapel or La Gioconda, ‘Madame Bovary’ or ‘War and Peace,’” she wrote in her essay “The Novel as Social Criticism,” which is included in this volume. “The moment the novelist begins to show how society affected the lives of his characters, how they were formed and shaped by the sprawling inchoate world in which they lived, he is writing a novel of social criticism whether he calls it that or not.”

This Petry — the surprisingly pugnacious practitioner-critic rising to the defense of her own work, as social realism was falling out of fashion — might be my favorite of all her registers, but she does her writing a slight disservice. Her work endures (despite her own efforts) not merely because of the strength of its message but its artistry. “Sometimes when a writer is regarded as ‘before her time,’ we don’t quite understand that the same work is still right on time,” the novelist Tayari Jones has written in praise of Petry.

Petry will always feel on time. Her kind of talent will always feel startling and sui generis: The music of her sentences, and their discipline; her unerring sense of psychology; the fullness with which she endows each character, which must be understood as a kind of love; the plots that commandeer whole hours and days. (I am writing this review in a swivet of shame, in fact, in the baleful eyeline of an unwalked dog, unwashed dishes, unanswered emails.) Her work endures not only because it illuminates reality, but because it harnesses the power of fiction to supplant it.


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